Few endeavours produce as many heroes as sport. A good way to judge who they are in 2022 is by looking at Instagram followings. The most-followed person on the platform is Cristiano Ronaldo, clocking in at 477 million followers.
Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson is not far behind at 335 million. While he might be best known as an actor and wrestler, the star, in his own words, is the product of another vocation. “I am a lot of things, but at my core, I always have been and always will be a bodybuilder."
Along with football, bodybuilding has produced some of the most historic sporting heroes of all time. If Instagram had been around during the days of Charles Atlas or the heyday of Arnold Schwarzenegger, they might well have been in the top 10.
The mass appeal of the world's most famous bodybuilders is not just down to looks, but the motivational examples they set in and outside the gym. Schwarzenegger is a case in point: he came to the US speaking barely any English, became one of the most famous athletes of all time, then one of its most recognisable actors. He then entered American politics before becoming governor of California. He is among the most successful US immigrant stories of the 20th century.
Now, the UAE has an overcoming-all-odds bodybuilding hero of its own. Abdulla Al Eisaei, an Emirati who lost his left leg in a car accident, is the first amputee from the UAE to win an international bodybuilding competition, after he came first in his category at the IFBB Pro Spain Empro Classic competition two weeks ago.
Al Eisaei's story is one of remarkable fortitude. He now wears his prosthetic limb as a “badge of honour” and a blessing from God. He describes losing his leg as a "moment after which my life was never going to be the same. But somehow I also knew it was going to take a turn for the better".
Perhaps that is so, but the journey to his victory has been a painful one. At the time of the accident doctors told him "to say his final prayers", and when he did eventually pull through, it took months of agonising pain and rehabilitation to get used to his new life.
His success and example is also one for the entire Middle East, a region that already has a large footprint in the sport. Iraq hosted the Mr Universe championship as far back as 1971. Fifty contestants from 32 nations took part, with thousands of spectators in attendance. In 1983, Samir Bannout, otherwise known as the “Lion of Lebanon”, won Mr Olympia, the sport's most prestigious event. Egypt's Mamdouh Elssbiay, or "Big Ramy", reigning champion in 2020 and 2021, is only the second person in the event's history to win back-to-back titles.
Al Eisaei's is not the only victory for the region, then, but it is an important one. Including disabled people in sport is crucial to reducing stigma as the region starts to think more about helping its people of determination. For his part, Al Eisaei has said he now wants to open a gym that can be a welcome space for disabled people in the UAE.
Most of all, his triumph is a reminder of what people can overcome if they have the drive. As Al Eisaei says: "If you have a goal in mind and truly believe that you will succeed, then you will. It is all in the mind set.”